Fears over Edinburgh Christmas Market safety kept secret by city council despite public reassurances

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Concerns over the scaffolding structure were dismissed initially, but emails show officials were worried about the safety.

Safety fears over the scaffold structure for the Christmas Market were held by Edinburgh City Council officials despite being brushed off publicly by the local authority and contractors Underbelly.

Council concerns over the scaffolding were not made public despite stories in the Evening News (Photo: Contributed)

Council concerns over the scaffolding were not made public despite stories in the Evening News (Photo: Contributed)

The Evening News can reveal that on the same day it reported on public fears over the construction of the so-called ‘space deck’ in East Princes Street Gardens in November, council officials kept secret their concerns over the structure.

The secret internal safety fears were not dealt with by Underbelly until the day before the market’s opening, emails from council officers show.

The revelation follows the news on Wednesday that Underbelly director Charlie Wood threatened to cancel the Winter Festivals three times as relationships frayed between the events company and the council.

Edinburgh City Council said any concerns raised were checked and acted upon and said they made clear the market would not open if it was not deemed safe.

Council concerns over the scaffolding were not made public despite stories in the Evening News

Council concerns over the scaffolding were not made public despite stories in the Evening News

Underbelly said that safety is “always our first priority” and received a building warrant “in the proper manner”.

Evening News told no safety concerns

On November 6, pictures of stacks of thin pieces of wood supporting the scaffolding were shared on social media by concerned residents with many worried about the safety of the overall structure.

At the time, the Evening News was told by Underbelly that the “installation in the East Gardens is safe” and by the council that the application for a building warrant demonstrated “compliance with the regulations”.

Council concerns over the scaffolding were not made public despite stories in the Evening News

Council concerns over the scaffolding were not made public despite stories in the Evening News

In a statement, published in an article on November 6, the council added that the application for the building warrant was “currently being assessed”.

However, in emails obtained by the Evening News, internal concerns over the safety of the structure were being shared between council colleagues and building standards.

An email sent on the same day by David Givan, a service manager in the council’s planning and building standards department, to David Watson, Underbelly’s head of production, shows the structure was far from being considered safe by the council.

It was also on this day that Charlie Wood labelled concerns over potential impact to trees by some of the market’s stalls as “cr*p” in an email to director of place Paul Lawrence.

Council concerns over the scaffolding were not made public despite stories in the Evening News

Council concerns over the scaffolding were not made public despite stories in the Evening News

'Not been constructed in accordance with the warrant drawings'

Mr Givan wrote: “From what we have seen from photographs on social media it appears that (at least some) of the scaffolding support structure has not been constructed in accordance with the warrant drawings.

“In particular, these drawings show timber sleepers of 100 x 200mm sections while the photographs we have seen show scaffolding planks which appear to be approximately 50mm thick.”

Mr Givan goes on to make Underbelly aware of a site visit and warns Mr Watson that a fresh SER certificate or changes to the construction would be needed for the structure to be compliant.

Despite this, the council had stated publicly that the existing SER certificate “demonstrates compliance with the regulations”.

Neither the council nor Underbelly made the concerns over the safety of the structure public at any point ahead of the opening of the Christmas Market on November 16.

This was despite several questions on social media and enquiries from the Evening News.

'No compromise' on public safety

Following the concerns being brought to Underbelly’s attention, Mr Givan told Charlie Wood the next day that “it is essential that you address any of the requirements that [officer] sets out”.

He added: “At present, works are being carried out without a building warrant and without planning permission. I consider that the steps I have set out above and in my email to David Watson of yesterday to be very reasonable given these circumstances.”

After another exchange of emails, the council’s executive director of place, one of the most powerful officers in the local authority, sent an internal email to staff, including the council’s head of communications.

It stated: “Again, no compromise on trees, building warrants or wider public safety.

“This thing cannot open unless all professional staff are in agreement that it is safe.”

Despite the level of public interest in the Christmas Market’s safety, this was never released publicly.

Ruth Davidson gets involved

On November 12, former Scottish Conservative leader and Edinburgh MSP Ruth Davidson waded into the row, asking Mr Lawrence for assurances over the safety of the structure.

In response, Mr Lawrence wrote: “The Christmas market will not open without all relevant safety certification, including a building warrant.

“Discussions are ongoing regarding compliance with the submitted designs and council officers are conducting a site inspection today.”

Completion certificates for the platform were only issued on November 15, a day before the market opened to the public.

A council spokesman said any concerns were “fully checked and actioned”.

They said: “There was an ongoing dialogue between the department and the applicant to make sure the structures were safe and fully compliant before the market opened to the public.

“Any concerns raised were fully checked and actioned as part of this process.

“We were clear throughout that the site would not open under any circumstances until all necessary conditions had been met.”

An Underbelly spokesman said; “Safety is always Underbelly’s first priority.

“The structure in East Princes Street Gardens was built and completed in accordance with its specification, and as agreed with the council’s engineers and Underbelly’s independent engineers, and received a building warrant in the proper manner.”

'I don't expect people to be economical with the truth'

Secrecy over council officer concerns about Underbelly’s scaffold structure has been blasted by opposition councillors.

Green councillor for the city centre ward Claire Miller said the council must “completely avoid a repeat of this fiasco” while Liberal Democrat councillor labelled the episode “extremely disappointing”.

Cllr Osler added the debacle was not putting anyone in a good light.

She said: “There is nothing about this in any way shape or form that is putting anyone in any good light.

“What I would like to see is total clarity and understanding of what happened and who knew and why so we can make sure this does not happen again.

“It is extremely disappointing because I expect a truthful response from officers and I don’t expect people to be economical with the truth.

“You can understand why residents are losing faith in the council because so am I.”

She added: “The problem is I don’t know what I don’t know and I have been to so many residents group meetings and understandably been shouted at at all of them.

“What this shows is poor management. Lets put this at the door where this belongs which is the administration.”

Must 'avoid a repeat of this fiasco'

Claire Miller, Green councillor for the city centre ward said she had found it “incredibly hard” to understand the background to the decisions around the market when investigating herself.

She said: “I’ve spent a great deal of time and effort investigating the decisions and the processes behind the Christmas market.

“Even as an elected member of this Council, with my access to council staff and information, it has been incredibly hard to piece together what’s happened, so I can only imagine how baffling it must seem to members of the public.

“I’m already thinking ahead to this year’s festive events, and I’m asking the Council administration and officers to ensure we completely avoid a repeat of this fiasco, with totally clear and accountable decision-making processes.”